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Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2001

Fukushima area's face-lift puts it back on Osaka map

Staff writer

OSAKA -- Once a backwater in the shadow of Osaka's highly developed Umeda district, the area around Fukushima station is slowly being transformed from a slightly run-down neighborhood of cheap ramen shops to a gentrified area of French restaurants and Internet cafes.

While vestiges of the old Fukushima still remain, the area is undergoing a face-lift because of its proximity to the Umeda district, with new shopping complexes opening up.

Located on the JR loop line just one stop west of Osaka station, Fukushima district had until the late 1990s escaped much of the construction that occurred in the neighboring Umeda district.

Small "tachinomiya" standup bars lined up underneath the train tracks served small businesses in the area. In the minds of many young Osakans, Fukushima was far away and difficult to get to, despite it being only a 15-minute walk or a two-minute train ride from Osaka station.

Changes started in 1998, when the Hanshin group -- which operates railways, hotels, department stores and owns the Tigers baseball team -- teamed up with the city of Osaka to build an underground passageway from Osaka station to the new Ritz Carlton hotel. The hotel is built on Hanshin-owned property and sits on the edge of the Fukushima district.

"When the underground passage, with marble walls and bright lights, was completed, it became possible to get to Fukushima without having to walk through western Umeda, which was still pretty run down," says Koji Haguri, a spokesman for Hotel Hanshin.

Hanshin then tore down its old hotel in Umeda and built a gleaming stone and glass structure right beside JR Fukushima station. When the hotel opened in 1999, it brought with it upmarket Japanese and European restaurants and a new clientele of young, wealthy customers who were tired of the crowds of Umeda.

"The customers came not only from Umeda but also from the new office buildings around Fukushima," says Haguri.

"Over the past few years, we've seen a lot more female customers in the district. Some of the more traditional shops, like sushi restaurants and pachinko parlors, have closed, replaced by European-style cafes," says Haruko Okamoto, who manages a flower shop near Fukushima station and who has lived in the area for more than 30 years.

A big advantage for small businesses and restaurants is the cost of renting space, which is still relatively low.

"My rent, though expensive, is still only about half of what I'd be paying if I were in the Umeda district," says Okamoto.

Not surprisingly, the gradual gentrification of this once decidedly working class neighborhood has left a few old-timers unhappy.

"Although there are still a lot of cheap places around Fukushima station, I worry that Fukushima is trying to become like Umeda. If it does, that will just drive the rents up, and the smaller 'izakaya' taverns and 'tachinomiya' bars won't be able to stay in business," says Okamoto.

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